[This review was first published in The Weekend Australian, May 30 2015]
Black Inc’s decision to release an anthology of short stories by Australian women could be taken as a political statement, given the ongoing debate about gender representation in literary culture. However, in the interests of balance perhaps, the Melbourne publisher also has plans for a men’s version, due in September with the somewhat provocative title Where There’s Smoke.
Despite its plain teal lettering, the word ‘‘rare’’ leaps off the cover of Something Special, Something Rare, inviting the question: what is it about Australian women’s short fiction that is so rare? No answer is offered in the foreword as there isn’t one — a curious omission. As a result, this anthology, which also doesn’t have an editor or editors credited, can be read as a response to the gender debate and the establishment of the Stella Prize for Australian women’s literature in 2011.
The latest Stella Count, which surveys the gender parity of books coverage in Australian print media, found that throughout 2013 books by female authors were featured disproportionately less than those by men. The report, which is on the Stella website, suggests this imbalance reinforces an attitude that “men’s writing is more deserving of reflection, recognition and review than that of women”. In this regard, women’s writing can be thought of as rare, or at the least under threat.
Something Special, Something Rare is the title of the Rebekah Clarkson story that concludes this collection. At first, Clarkson’s story isn’t an obvious metaphor for the anthology, narrated as it is by an anxious husband and father in the throes of a mid-life crisis.
One scene towards the end, however, speaks volumes about the anthology overall and echoes the ethos of the Stella Prize. The man’s wife drags him and their son birdwatching. Looking into the grey clouds, she yearns to spot an endangered bird, “something special, something rare”. She attempts to teach them the art of bird watching: “until you actually watch,” she tells them “you don’t see any birds. It’s like you have to know that you’re watching, you have to decide, in a way, otherwise you won’t see anything.”
The failure to see and properly recognise women’s writing is a problem the Stella Prize aims to remedy, and presumably so does this anthology. Something Special, Something Rare is far from a definitive survey of Australian women’s short fiction, however, as all of the stories are reprinted from editions of Black Inc’s annual Best Australian Stories. Fortunately for the publisher, and the reader, some of our finest writers are represented: Sonya Hartnett, Alice Pung, Kate Grenville, Joan London, Cate Kennedy, Gillian Mears, to name a handful.
Most of the 20 stories are recognisably set in Australia. Grenville’s Bushfire, which opens the collection, modernises the narrative of the woman displaced in the bush, pioneered by early Australian short-fiction writers such as Barbara Baynton and Henry Lawson. Grenville’s story is told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman who has relocated to the country and is unable to read the landscape around her. As fire rings her town, she’s made aware of her inadequate survival skills.
Anna Krien’s Flicking the Flint is an incendiary tale of family violence in the bush. Narrated from the emotionally stunted perspective of a young boy, the paradoxical claustrophobia of open spaces is viscerally felt by the reader, as the boy and his mother cower from an abusive father in their remote hut.
Moving to the city, Kennedy’s White Spirit skewers political correctness. Told from the jaded perspective of a community arts worker supervising a mural project for inner-city migrants, the story could be read as a cheeky dig at affirmative action — but in the end, and like the anthology overall, it is genuine in its politics.
Isabelle Li’s A Chinese Affair explores identity issues in modern Australia, relating the unhappy marriage of a Chinese migrant to an older Australian man who sees her as nothing more than a decoration in his house. Mears’s La Moustiquaire also teases out a domineering relationship, in this instance between an Indigenous woman and her stockman captor. The power imbalance switches when he is attacked by mosquitoes and left utterly defenceless.
All the stories here justify that use of “outstanding” in the collection’s subtitle. If pushed to choose one standout, for me it is Favel Parrett’s Lebanon, which in its three pages manages to convey more emotion than some stories do in 300. A teenage girl sits in her living room in Hobart and looks at a world map as her younger brother talks about a Lebanese refugee who visited his school that day. This beautiful meditation on loss and belonging evokes the Australian tyranny of distance and is a fine example of what the short-story form can achieve.